art and politics

A new play tries to chronicle Kashmir’s pain. But the Valley’s old storytellers are gone

For centuries, Kashmir’s bhands would speak truth to power. After the eruption of armed conflict in 1989, they fell silent.

A 24-hour immersive play called Information for/from Outsiders: Chronicles from Kashmir was staged in Pune this July. It featured Kashmiri artistes from the Ensemble Kashmir Theatre Akademi in Srinagar, who had been collaborating with Nandita Dinesh (who works on theatre in places of conflict) since 2013.

The play enacts vignettes from Kashmir’s conflict, experienced from the inside: how it enters Kashmiri homes, how stone pelters take to the streets, how individuals deal with trauma.

In cities outside the state, the play was a success. “We have been getting offers from within the country and abroad as well,” said Bhawani Bashir Yasir, who runs EKTA. “People want to host us [for the next session of the play in 2018].”

In the Valley though, the play barely made a splash – confirming again that political theatre has largely died out in the Valley. This is tragic. For centuries, the streets of Kashmir were home to a vibrant form of theatre called bhand pather, which combined satire, lament and comedy to portray contemporary situations.

Play

‘Theatre of the oppressed’

Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro’s Information for Foreigners (1992) is the point of departure for Information for/from Outsiders: Chronicles from Kashmir, according the play’s Facebook page, which reads:

“The piece, like any other, has its limitations. It can never do justice to all the narratives that compose Kashmir... It’s a step, though, a small step toward engaging audiences in stories and experiences that mainstream Indian media might never share with them; a small step toward sparking more educated – and less polarised – opinions about what is happening in the region.”

In the early 1970s a Brazilian director, Augusto Boal, introduced theatrical techniques that intended to effect social and political change. Collectively the techniques came to be known as the Theatre of the Oppressed. Bhand pather is, perhaps, a primitive form of Boal’s theatre of the oppressed, according to theatre directors in the Valley.

“Theories of theatre of the oppressed evolved in Western societies around mid-19th century,” said Arshad Mushtaq, filmmaker and theatre director.There was already something similar happening in Kashmir for centuries. Bhand pather would only pick contemporary issues, it was a resistance against the power centre and it sought justice.”

The theatrical form has been described by scholars as a powerful instrument against social cruelty. Small groups of actors would enact pathers or plays at open air shows across the Kashmir Valley, highlighting political and social issues faced by Kashmiri society at that time. More often than not, the current moment would be laced with turmoil and uncertainty.

Scholar Triloki Nath Ganjoo said: “It was never an amusement. They were lamenting, they were mourning, trying to get their cries and sorrow to reach the king’s ear. It was a people’s instrument that was very strong and communicative.”

Historically, according to Ganjoo, bhand pather aimed at doing away with the ills of the rulers, society, and governments. Ganjoo traces its existence in Kashmir to the 5th or 6th century CE. “Almost every zilla of the Valley had a group,” said Ganjoo. “Their traditions and styles differed, they were not educated but belonged to families that had been in the art for generations.”

The Kashmir Valley has a long history of oppressive rulers who unleashed extended spells of tyranny, and bhand pather was a powerful instrument against ruthless Hindu monarchs and Muslim sultans. Theatre, Ganjoo said, became an institution so powerful that even the despots of the time sought to manipulate their subjects through it. Kings would bribe performers to enact scripts that favoured the ruler.

A bhand pather would portray the coronation of kings and subsequently, their oppressive rule, the highhandedness of district officials and tax burdens. Portraying the Afghan rule between 1752 to 1819, it depicted Pathans kidnapping women from the Valley.

The Bhands

The performers, or bhands, were wanderers who travelled to different parts of the Valley with their plays. The performances were largely extempore, breaking out in the streets at short notice.

“It wasn’t just theatre,” said Mushtaq. “It was sort of a media or social media that would connect the society, the problems of one part would be made known to another.”

Each play was typically steered by four main actors. The magun was the leader of the troupe and the protagonist. The sutradhar or the narrator, commented on actions during the play. The maskhar was the jester. The task of the kurivol, the whip bearer, was to whip the maskhar after a point.

While the jester’s actions evoked laughter, the humour was dark. Satire, Mushtaq said, was not direct and “meanings would be conveyed between the lines, not with the lines. This is the beauty of the dialogue and the pun in bhand pather”.

Yasir, who graduated from the National School of Drama, said that organising the crowd before the play was also part of the act. The person tasked with rounding up the audience would ensure that children sat at the front, by lifting the corners of his knee-length kameez to turn it into a makeshift pouch, tempting children with imaginary sweets. Usually, the sweets were either pebbles, or sweets that the organiser ate himself – evoking peals of laughter from the children. “Making the children settle down is also an art,” Yasir said.

Different rulers gave rise to different kinds of pathers. Eleven types remain in memory, of which the most famous are the Darz Pather, which portrayed the rule of the Dards, the dynasty which preceded Mughal rule. The Shikargah Pather depicted Mughal rule. Raaz’e Pather depicted the kings and their courtiers through the ages. Watal Pather was based on cobblers. Angrez Pather depicted the British during colonial times.

Actor and director MK Raina wrote that the plays were social dramas that blended mythology and satire. The styles ranged from “purely realistic” to “highly exaggerated”. They often used pantomime, which has a “an abstract, graphic quality, making it a strong element in the fabric of the bhand pather”.

The plays tended to end with a prayer, Raina wrote.

“All the performances end with the recitation of the duay kher, praying for the betterment of the land and people protecting them from disease and death. Very auspicious, the duay kher is spoken by the magun and repeated by the audience.” 

Death of satire

Other forms of satire also blossomed in the Valley, such as Laddi Shah, a name used for both the performer and the performance. Like the bhands, here too the performers were a travelling troupe. In this form, satire would be delivered in a musical monologue. It usually featured a single performer carrying a metal staff fitted with rings that jangle.

The performer, dressed in a green or white pheran with a dastaar or turban, would performs the monologue to a tune created with the metal staff. Like the bhands, the laddi shahs carried news to various parts of the Valley long before the advent of technology.

But the militancy of the past 30 years has almost wiped out these forms of expression. Bhand pather has been on a steady decline since since 1989. “Our art forms have always been hijacked by political scoundrels who have traded our history and ethos,” Yasir said. A theatre group started by Yasir in 1988 was shut down for a few years following armed violence in the Valley. A play scheduled for the Asian Arts Festival was also cancelled, he said.

Yasir said the dilution of the theatre form began after 1950s and subsequently, newspapers replaced bhand pather as a form of communication among the masses. It also became victim to commercialisation and neglect, he said. In the 1980s, he recalled, there were state-sponsored spaces across the Valley for the performances.

The militancy and the backlash by the state brought in a whole new vocabulary and experiences that performers were too afraid to articulate. “If an art form does not reflect the contemporary moment, wishes, aspirations, ethos and life which it belongs to, it becomes irrelevant,” said Yasir. “When theatre is also used for propaganda or for entertainment, then that theatre perishes. This is what has happened to art forms here.”

Bhand pather, Mushtaq said, had been reduced to a “backyard entertainment company for the babus”. Mushtaq blamed government policies and the establishment of cultural centres – these, according to him, were akin to censor boards that came up with schemes incentivising and bribing the performers.

“We should have made an army pather [depicting the army] instead of armean pather – a play on vegetable growers. Or crackdown pather on security crackdowns, or kanijung pather on stone-pelting,” he said. “This is the reason there is a disconnect, and the pathers drove people away. Because they do not talk about the contemporary situation. They perform the same angrez and darz pather.”

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